Bangkok: A Childhood in Oz
Dec 3, 2001
David Rich 1300 Words
B a n g k o k, a T r i p B a c k i n T i m e
I was stunned, taxiing into Bangkok from the airport. "What's going on?" I hollered at the back of the cabby's head. A million lights lit the boulevard, kliegs splitting the night while giant posters marched triumphantly down the center of the street, hundreds of them.
"'Tis the king's birthday," beamed the driver, smile so wide I could see it from behind, wrapped around his head.
The most important institution in Thailand was exactly what, as a child, I imagined every fairy book kingdom should have—a king and his queen, though I heard little about the queen. I heard an abundance about the royal couple's kids, three daughters and a son. Newspapers reported daily on what the children were up to and how their antics affected their father, apparently having had no effect on mom whatsoever. The Thais worried because they loved their king. It would be a lynching offense to suggest he was archaic. But maybe he wasn't. The Thai government was rancidly corrupt and King Rama IX made periodic pronouncements on the government's flaws and double standards, the kind of thing a child might point to when the emperor has no clothes. It made me feel warm all over that Yul Brynner had been the king's grandfather. Comments like that would have gotten me banned from Bangkok. And the king's birthday made for a raucous week.
Bangkok was a city that had to have been dreamed up by children, children who seemingly stuffed the metropolis like friendly munchkins out of a time warp from Oz. Every Bangkok block was thronged with smiling Thais, hands together as they bowed in greeting to me, the archetypal run-of-the-mill tourist. "Saw-wa-dee, saw-wa-dee-ka." They weren't even trying to sell us anything.
I asked a likely looking tourist stumbling next to us, "How can they be so nice to literally everyone?" My wife and I had been discussing the "why" for days.
He muttered like anyone would have, accosted by the odd other tourist, "Perhaps they're descended from saints."
That was something I might have said, something totally dumb, because it couldn't be. The Thais are Buddhists and Buddhism has zero saints in its lexicon.
Every other block exhibited an elaborate complex of temples only a child could have conjured. Some kid had assuredly cornered the gold paint market. The few non-golden parts were covered with miniature mirrors and polished ceramics in a rainbow of colors, while golden Peter Pans adorned temple walls. Writhing dragons, sharp-toothed serpents and towering Ronald McDonalds with fierce tusks and scowling faces guarded temple doors where we met a friendly Thai photographer anxious to practice his English.
"Who're those guys?" I asked. Ten-year-old boys with shaved heads and bright saffron-colored robes slipped around corners like wraiths, carrying plates of veggies and melting between infinite rows of spit-polished golden Buddhas and carved gargoyles.
He had a smile like my cabbie. "They're monks, Buddhist monks."
"Gee, a little young aren't they?"
"Nah, we start young here. Most everyone spends a year in a monastery. It's Thai basic training." He'd found us at the entrance to a genuinely grand temple where we yanked off our shoes and tiptoed inside over a red carpet to brilliantly colored murals of pink elephants on flying carpets wafting through azure pastel skies. In the middle, staring right at us, smiled a huge golden Buddha surrounded by far smaller Buddhas way bigger than us, glistening in the candlelight.
"I love this stuff," I told the photographer. Even after traipsing through dozens of temples they continued to captivate the child in me. And I only had a gazillion left to go.
"If you get a chance," he said, slipping us his card, "come see my place on Khao San Road. I'm there afternoons."
A couple of days later we made it to Khao San Road where the throwback to childhood continued, gringo central for Westerners. I'd never seen so much shopping for knickknacks in a single location. We energetically thrust into the fray, buying a tie-dye T-shirt festooned with a jumbo picture of an elephant and one with a logo for Chang Beer, symbolized by an elephant. I was getting into elephants, when I ran across my photographer friend's shop.
"Hey, let's grab a bite," I said, famished. He smiled and nodded repeatedly as I wolfed down a heap of falafels for fifty-seven cents and moved on to a plate of pad Thai for twenty-two cents while my wife looked on in awe.
"I know a good place to eat if you're that hungry," he said.
"Not hungry any more," I said. "Look at that." There were piles and rows of silver rings, earrings, studs, things.
"All fake," he said.
I bought pricey drinks for the three of us at a Cheers-style bar, and we took them outside to watch gringo chicks getting cornrows woven on the spot. Pirated CDs came in voluminous catalogs and suddenly the earth shook.
"Whatsit?" I whispered.
"Good timing," he said. I did a double take at the elephants clomping down the thoroughfare. But then it was the king's birthday. I'd thought horses could dominate a parade; elephants make horses look like small potatoes. The huge gray monoliths were dressed in red canopies shading teak top-boxes and were led by Thai majorettes in tiny skirts making me want to dance, to shuck off my shoes like entering a private temple. It seemingly made everyone else want to dance, too, as we jiggled on the sidelines, snapping pictures with abandon. Our photographer friend shot nary a one.
A few blocks away, starting every night about sundown, my photographer friend would show us the sights and the juvenile fantasy continued. He'd point and we'd cross the street and I'd think I was dreaming, the male version of perpetual childhood. The very cutest women crowded around, vying to fulfill every childhood fantasy. The Thai ladies were darling, bouncy, cute, petite, happy, smiling, dancing, cavorting and joking with the best and the worst like in every thirteen-year-old male's dream. . My ribs bore the brunt of my wife's frequent nudges. In Bangkok I was almost thirteen again, walking down the street through whispers in a tone that struck me as absolutely sincere.
"Hey, cutie, come over here."
I looked over my shoulder and my photographer friend laughed while my wife just smiled. I pointed at a sign, and he said, "Sure. It's a good deal." Only 150 baht an hour, less than four dollars. We went legit. I tried the Thai massage every evening for two weeks, and it was worth more than I paid, while my wife enjoyed the Swedish massage.
The photographer showed me his pictures, mostly of tourists in all shapes and sizes though young, late teens and twenties. He asked what I thought of Bangkok traffic and pollution. "Isn't it the pits?" His English was excellent.
Because I'd come from China, I only blinked, looking around. I could see blue sky in Bangkok and the traffic would have been nothing if they'd have timed the intersections instead of making every light five minutes long, shattering the rhythm irremediably; traffic couldn't flow on a bet.
"We're staying on the river," I said. And he understood. All savvy children bunked near the big muddy river and took river boats for fifteen cents anywhere and everywhere, no traffic jams and great scenery past cone-shaped temples brightly painted in yellows, reds, and, the ever-present gold. Fantail boats decorated with Pepsi logos whipped the bejesus out of the river with propellers on twenty-foot-long shafts, a more expensive alternative to the people's ferry.
Ah, the food was French quality at utterly un-French prices. A splurge lunch, eating everything on the menu, cost maximum five dollars, no matter the cuisine. Fabulous Thai food was available from every street vendor and set me back fifty cents, a super bargain. We stuck around Bangkok for a longish spell and did my second childhood, humored by my wife—a trip back in time.